When trauma enters the lives of the unsuspecting, it steals from their very soul. It not only robs them of peace and joy, it can take years and decades from their lives while they desperately try to fill the hole in their heart, pretending that their soul isn’t leaking out of it. No one is ever prepared for trauma and no one is ever left unchanged by traumatic events.
To further explore how people cope with such events, I recently interviewed Kathleen Parrish, Clinical Director at Cottonwood Tucson, an inpatient holistic behavioural health treatment centre and addiction rehabilitation centre in Arizona. Kathleen is the co-author of The Essence of Resilience: Stories of Triumph over Trauma.
There seems to be an increase in the number of people who are diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Can we attribute this increase to a change in our awareness of trauma, or are people simply at greater risk to experience a traumatic event?
Now, more than ever before, we are living in a world of trauma. News outlets and social media are teeming with reports of the trauma happening around us, such as bombings, terrorism, escalating conflict between nations, threats of war, and crimes of violence. It is nearly impossible to walk through life and not experience a traumatic event. Historically, we may have failed to recognise the impact of trauma upon the human body, brain, and spirit. We did not understand that trauma leaves an indelible mark upon a person’s life. However, emerging research teaches us that trauma has a devastating impact upon a person’s overall ability to cope, changing the physical and neurological chemistry of the human body and wreaking havoc upon a person’s relationships, and self-concept. So, while we are faced with an increase in environmental, global, and personal trauma, we are continuing to develop a greater understanding of the short and long-term implications of these traumas.
Has the increased awareness about trauma resulted in destigmatising PTSD and treatment to support trauma recovery?
Although research continues to lead us to a greater understanding of the physical and emotional implications of traumatic events, those who suffer may still deal with the stigma of trauma. Many trauma survivors experience great shame about their need for help and support to recover. Victims of abuse and violence often remain silent about their experiences for fear of being judged or blamed for their abuse. Many who seek support or talk about their experiences with others are told to ‘move on’ or ‘get over’ the trauma that occurred in their life. In some families and societies, PTSD is viewed as a weakness or character flaw and those who suffer may struggle to receive the support or help they need. So, while trauma research is ongoing, we need to continue to develop the attitudes of acceptance and compassion necessary to help those who suffer from trauma and PTSD.
What factors may lead someone to seek treatment for trauma?
Many people who have a history of trauma do not seek treatment for PTSD. In fact, those who have PTSD often seek treatment for other co-occurring disorders such as depression, substance use disorders (SUD), compulsive behaviours, anxiety, or self-harm behaviours. In such cases, the impetus for treatment is usually a serious and secondary consequence of these other disorders, such as an arrest for driving under the influence (DUI), marital conflict, or being fired from their job. It is only during an assessment or evaluation while in treatment that PTSD may also be diagnosed. In fact, many individuals may not recognise that they have experienced a trauma, even though they may suffer from many of the debilitating symptoms of PTSD. It is essential that treatment for co-occurring disorders include evaluation and assessment of trauma, allowing for greater potential to support long-term recovery and reduce the risks of relapse.
How does resilience allow a person to recover from trauma?
Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back or to return to the original state after being bent or stretched. Recent research is focused on the concept of psychological resilience as a protective factor for those who have experienced stress or trauma. This research about resilience phenomena include three types of resilience: 1) those who seem to suffer less than others; 2) those who fare better than others facing similar difficulties; 3) and those who have better outcomes than were expected, given the nature of the circumstances of their lives.
When we consider those who experienced trauma, we can conclude that those who recognise their resilience have better outcomes than those who do not see themselves as resilient. Most people have traits of resilience that can support their recovery; however some individuals struggle to embrace this resilience. Resilience can take many forms, such as trust, connection, forgiveness, humour, and the willingness to be vulnerable. Those who recover from trauma possess a willingness and ability to overcome their suffering through one of these many avenues.
Resilience is both inherent and learned. This means that individuals who may not fully recognise their own resilience can learn to do so through the support and encouragement of a skilled clinician or supportive friends and family members. When individuals are able to recognise and assert their resilience, they become powerful examples of courage and healing in recovery.
The book was written to inspire and offer hope to those who have suffered from the devastating blow of trauma. There are many research-based books that offer a clinical approach to the treatment of trauma but may fail to celebrate the strength and courage of those who survived. This book is a journey into the lives and stories of survivors who experienced significant loss, tragedy, and abuse. It is a tribute that is intended to honour the spirit of survival and the rough-hewn beauty that can emerge in the heart and life of one who has overcome significant pain, suffering, or sorrow.
Clinicians may find that The Essence of Resilience can help them recognise and enhance resilient traits and actions in their clients who suffer from PTSD or unresolved trauma.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.